Escape to Victory

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“You are the only ones who never cried” Betty, Head of Thoughtful Path Munsieville (TPM). Betty, when the plane descended towards Heathrow through dark freezing fog I cried. I also left the plane irritated having been served a poached egg for breakfast rather than the promised omelette, so much for coming home with a better grasp of what is really important in life.

The six months on PULSE assignment have been exceptionally stimulating and rewarding. There are lots of people to thank for helping it be that way: GSK, Pulse Team and alumni, my manager and co-workers back home, Project Hope UK staff, friends and family, Donna (long suffering fellow volunteer) the staff at the lodge, but none more so than the TPM team themselves and the community of Munsieville. Those associated with GSK have to be thanked for enabling me to devote all my energy to the assignment. Robert, my coach, was great support, helping me to articulate what I needed to achieve and how to go about it. I would recommend to anyone participating in PULSE 2014 to take up the offer of coaching support. Project Hope UK staff were very supportive in helping me adjust to a new environment but also “hands-off” allowing me to learn from my many mistakes (never volunteer to boil one hundred and eighty eggs in a day). The TPM team and volunteers displayed great passion in their commitment towards helping their community to help themselves but also a willingness to discuss and develop their own means of monitoring the impact of their programs.

The TPM program is ambitious having four main objectives which it believes seven sub-teams (hubs) made up of volunteers from the community will be able to deliver. Life in the TPM container can be chaotic. I’ve seen formal meetings, sporting activities such as hula hooping, dusting and brai (barbeque) preparation taking place in the same space at the same time. There is a constant buzz and feeling that everyone is busy although sometimes there is a nagging doubt as to whether this energy is focused on the priorities of the organization. I now appreciate there is some purpose to the constant stream of emails and e-learning courses we receive at GSK that remind us of our goals and priorities. I think TPM too has made great strides in training its staff and volunteers with respect to focusing on its key objectives and has recently restructured its organization so that one key worker will work closely with each hub to make sure they commit to projects aimed at reaching the four main objectives. It is not an exciting realisation but it is clear to me now that for any organization to succeed it is essential that all its members are aware of and align their activities towards its goals.

Even when projects are targeted towards one of the four objectives:

1] Increased access to health services by OVC (orphans and other vulnerable children) and caregivers
2] Increased OVC legal registration and awareness of rights
3] Increased primary school enrolment and attainment through ECD (early childhood development)
4] Economic uplift of OVC caregivers

there is a need to monitor the progress of each project and to evaluate the impact of the project on completion. It is in trying to encourage the team to regard monitoring and evaluation (M and E) as an essential part of their work where I have learnt the most on this assignment. Firstly, I quickly learnt that you need to trust the people on the ground to implement projects. They know how to approach and consult with their community and also know how best to raise delicate issues (such as poverty, statelessness and illness) in ways that will not cause offence or upset. Secondly, I realised that it was possible to coach team members on aspects of work they found challenging that I had no expertise in myself. In fact it was quite liberating, since any possible solutions had to come from the staff rather than myself. Thirdly, I released that to have a chance of being fully adopted any M and E tool would have to been developed in close conjunction with the team that would make use of the tool. So in summary it comes back to another of GSKs management’s get out clauses – empower your team to complete its tasks.

I guess most people leave their assignment wondering whether their projects will continue or will have a lasting legacy. I’m optimistic that the staff of TPM are well placed to deliver on their four key objectives, not particularly because of anything I’ve done but because the team themselves have put in place a structure and reporting system that should see each of the seven hubs become more focused on monitoring their progress towards these goals. As Michael Caine, captain of West Ham and England, in Escape to Victory, said in the changing rooms at half time when 4-1 down “We can win this one lads”.

I can also give positive progress reports on the work previous volunteers have undertaken. Daphne Van helped set up a detailed assessment of the safety of homes within Munsieville, the assessment was coupled with passing on simple tips (e.g. keep candles away from curtains) on how to keep the home safe and what to do should a fire break out. Although the following winter was relatively mild, Saffiera has noted that there were only three major fires throughout and that none were due to unsafe practices. Saffiera has, with the Resilience hub, begun to revisit the homes a year later to reinforce the safety tips and to check that homes are being kept safe. Nearly all homes are heeding the safety tips, a few are struggling to keep their stove in the recommended location out of reach of children but only because of the limited space within their homes. Sarah Hatfield worked with the hubs to produce a manual that serves as a guide to setting up and running the hubs. This manual is greatly revered; no hub meeting is complete without it for reference.

Lastly, I must thank again all the staff and volunteers at TPM. Betty, Gladys, Thuli, Saffiera, Imelda and Thandi you made me very welcome and were very open in letting me observe and critique how you carry out your tasks. There are too many volunteers to completely list by name so no offence is meant if I’ve left your name off or have spelt it wrong, but thanks to “Our” Obakang, “Mapping” Obakang, Pappa, Nicholas, Stella, Miles, Rebecca, Diets, Catherine, Ifram, Simon, Sarah, Biutimello, Kuki, Tebago, Fasil, Joseph, Susan … I will miss your stories and energy.

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Having travelled around South Africa I now realise that it is blessed with amazing scenery and wildlife, some of it not even that far from Johannesburg. I still find it a perplexing country, on the surface it looks like it should run fine but it doesn’t. Here is a picture of a lightening rod that fell over into the lodge car park during high winds. Three months on it remains as a feature. I asked Gerald, the lodge manager, what his plans to replace the rod were “It’s OK, we’ve still got three standing”.

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